Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

What happens when I drink good Belgian beer

Not long ago, I went to a Philly bar called Eulogy with my best friend. This bar is a Belgian sort of pub one feature of which is a private room with a table like a coffin, and this best friend is a guy earning his master’s in literature but who also moonlights as a keyboardist in one band and a lead guitarist in another, which I hope will intimate the overall atmosphere. If only because my buddy and I have the conversation where we discuss Derrida but totally admit to neither ever reading or understanding the guy.

Over the course of (several) fine Belgian beers (Rochefort 10 ftw!), we started talking about Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight. Now, what you have to know, straight off, is that while we’re good buddies, he and I rarely agree on anything related to either music or movies. We both like music in general and good music in particular, but we have very different definitions as to what that exactly means.

So, Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight.

I didn’t love the movie. I’ve read many people claim that the reason it’s so great is because Christopher Nolan, moreso than directing a good superhero movie, managed to make a good movie, overall, but I’m not sure. See, I think that what really happened is that Nolan managed to make a good crime movie out of superhero material, because I can’t agree it was overall a good movie; it’s at least twenty minutes to half an hour too long, the final twenty minutes to half an hour of which seem composed of a philosophical treatise on the nature of good and evil telegraphed through dialog to the audience because Nolan suddenly got scared his audience hadn’t picked up what he was saying. Still, I will admit I originally thought it was badly structured, but I’ve since realized it’s not, that the plot turns when it’s supposed to for the most part (given 3-act structure and 140 minutes, the first plot point should come about 35 minutes in, with another midpoint beat and then a second plot point, each coming 35 minutes after the previous).

Also: when did Two-Face debut? In the comics, I mean. He’s been around at least long enough that Tommy Lee Jones played him nearly a decade ago, but yet he lasts, like, fifteen minutes in this flick? Wtf? I suppose it’s possible Nolan was lolzing us and will bring Two-Face back for The Dark Knight Returns or The Dark Knight Again or The Dark Knight Lightens Up a Bit, Because, Seriously, Why So Serious?, but either way, I think Nolan blows his villain load by using two who merely serve as thematic foils to Batman/Bruce Wayne, rather than any story use.

Because I think that’s the problem I have with the Joker (and with Ledger’s portrayal of him). While he claims to both want chaos and have no plan (and I realize that his claim of the latter probably serves the former), I think that the two villains clash in a way that the Scarecrow and Liam Neeson didn’t in Batman Begins. The first movie was about Batman and how he foiled the plans of Neeson, whose subsidiary was the Scarecrow; this movie is not just about Batman anymore. It’s about Gotham City and heroes and good and evil (as Nolan seems to want so dearly for us to see). It’s almost like Nolan had the exact opposite problem as the brothers Wachowski: while the second two Matrix movies probably should have been combined into a single flick, Nolan probably should have taken his time with this story and let the second installment become two.

(which, too, would have solved the problem Warner Bros. now faces, because, sorry to be callous about it, but who’s going to play the Joker now?)

Can the Joker desire chaos but have no plan? I’m not sure it works both ways, but given a little more fleshing out, Nolan might have proven it can and does. As it stands, though, the problem with the Joker is that he’s merely the foil or the anti-self or the whatever-opposite of Batman. He’s reactionary, really, and I’m trying to come up with great characters who have been solely reactionary but not really succeeding. He wants chaos, but only seems to want chaos because other people have plans he doesn’t like.

(of course, the major argument there is there’s no such thing as order, anyway, given that the natural tendency of all things is toward disorder/entropy. Had the Joker taken any science courses, he might realize that life exists despite chaos, in which case he might file for unemployment by reason of redundance)

Given all that, Ledger arguably did the best job he could with a somewhat otherwise limited role; I’m not sure he’s the only reason The Dark Knight wasn’t a typical superhero movie, but he might have been. That and his premature death are, I think, a large part of the reason his performance has gotten the acclaim it has. Which might seem cynical or even callous, I fear, but the thing is, I keep thinking of his performance in Brokeback Mountain. Now, I didn’t like Brokeback; in fact, I shut it off after fifteen or twenty minutes, because I was bored out of my skull. And I think that The Dark Knight, despite its flaws, is a movie far superior to Brokeback if only because the latter commits the cardinal sin of movies, which is that it’s not at all entertaining, but still, I watch Ledger as Joker and I just don’t think his performance there is nearly as good as he was in Brokeback Mountain. In Brokeback, he wanted something (namely: Gyllenhaal) but yet restrained himself, and in that restraint is all the subtlety and craft that I thought the Joker lacked. The Joker seemed wall-to-wall Id. Creepy thrift-store drugged-out rockstar more likely to front an emo band, sure, and entertaining to at least the degree you expect him to be onstage lamenting about how nothing actually has meaning, but just being crazy-villain guy seems to require little effort. I mean, in some ways, it strikes me that his role was of the just-add-alcohol variety; skip all the inhibitions and the performance executes itself.

Do I think he’ll win (not that you asked)? I don’t know if it’s important, at this point, if only because I think there’s too great a disconnect between good movies and critically acclaimed, award-winning movies. And why do I think that?

Because the one thing my buddy and I could agree on, over those fine Belgian beers, was that Ironman might well have been the best movie all year, and Robert Downey, Jr. has always knocked every performance he’s ever given straight out of the park. I mean, the fact that he doesn’t have an Oscar yet is nearly as big a travesty as that Zodiac went completely ignored last year, and if he got one this year for being “the dude playin’ the dude disguised as another dude,” I wouldn’t argue. I’d say he could then dedicate it to Ledger, but didn’t Daniel Day-Lewis already do that last year?

All that said, I might also just be bitter. I still wish Nolan had cast Christian Bale as the Joker, too, because I think that would have been awesome.

(crossposted to


  1. Nice post, and I agree with you on quite a lot of your points. I thought Harvey was a much more compelling character than the Joker, if only because he had more depth– twice as much depth, to be exact. 😉

  2. You know, we argued about this when the movie first came out. I watched it again with my mum (who hated it), and I found it lacking. Perhaps I was taken in at the theatre by the enthusiasm of all the other people, the huge screen, the loud explosions. But I also came out of the second viewing liking the portrayal of the Joker, but being bored with Batman. And his “Batman” voice annoyed me.

    I also agree that the whole plot with Two-Face was not properly done. I felt to me as if they remembered in the last minute that most Batman movies have TWO villains. Oops, throw in Dent now. The previews had led me to believe that they were prepping the third movie to be Two-Face, and this sort of “Gotcha! We’re doing it now!” ending actually ticked me off. (I also thought his makeup was a bit over the top, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    If we’re going on super hero movies, Ironman was far superior. I was interested in Stark’s evolution as a person and a hero. The struggle between the two “identities” is actually very similar. Billionaire playboy versus masked avenger. Each one teeters on the edge of what’s accepted, each has this struggle between the light and the dark, or what have you. But with Stark, I CARED. With Batman, it was more of “Yeah, okay. I get it. Moving on…”

    So… yeah.

  3. @Sonja: he totally did! Ha! Also, can you imagine to what better use one could put Aaron Eckhardt? Who’s awesome.

    @Hannah: I think second viewings equalize reactions: people who loved it realized it wasn’t so good, but people who disliked it realize it wasn’t so bad. I fell into that latter category: on second viewing, I was like, “You know, it’s not that bad. Sure, it’s got flaws, but overall, I mean, I’m still entertained. It’s still pretty fun. There’s still lots of shit blowing up.”

  4. I hated it from the minute I saw it…perhaps, because of the hype–but moreso because of the lack of a genuine character development. Batman–well, there’s all sorts of issues besides the phony voice. How about lack of any emotion whatsoever? Dent serves as a one-dimensional fall guy from moment one, and his demise is the equivalent of a straw man’s burning. It’s a shame, too, because the nuts and bolts story is a solid one–and given the right dialogue, there could have been a unique poignancy to that character. It could have been a meditation on loss. Instead, it was a cheap ooh-look-I’m-crazy formula. As for Ledger, he did absolutely nothing except overact. Sorry–I’m not afraid of the ones who scream in the night. I’m afraid of the ones silently boiling in the corner.

  5. I see now that the movie was either two long or should have been made into two movie (much like this blog that does not properly follow the three act stanza) but I still think Heath did a better job then Jack Nicolson.

    The major problem I had with the movie was that they said the joker wore make up. At first I thought they were trying to be more realist and a criminal who was scared chalk wite wasn’t that realistic in their eyes. Except, they scared up Two-Face really well.

    You really just want a American Psycho 2 I think.

  6. I feel like the only person in America that *hasn’t* seen The Dark Knight. There’s just too much hype. It’d just be a total let down at this point, no matter what.

    I loved Iron Man! Definitely the movie of 2008!

  7. That’s the point, really. The Joker *is* wall-to-wall id. He Kicks the Dog. He Rapes the Dog. He makes up new and unseemly things to do to that dog. And he makes you watch. He’s Batman unleashed.

    While Batman runs about the city beating up thugs in vain effort to create some kind of order, The Joker floats here and there creating chaos. I’ve had arguments with some who said, ‘you don’t get any of The Joker’s motives. There’s no reason for what he does.’ To which I say Joker’s a force of nature. You may as well argue with the wind than try and get a straight answer out of him. Just ask him how he got that wicked smile.

    Regarding the Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face, forget that noise. Although I believe the reason we continue to have two villains in every Hollywood movie is because The Suits think that one is not enough. It’s a silly idea for sure but there it is.

    Nolan’s Two-Face is that grey area. The coin decides if chaos or order is served. Whether he should have been in the movie is, again, debatable. But it was nice to see Eckhart make Harvey Dent viable again.

    Iron Man was the funnest movie ever. Apparently, it rested on the backs of the talented movie makers rather than the script. Not everybody can do that. I hope whenever they get around to doing the Demon in the Bottle storyline they can repeat the first movie’s awesome.

    By the by, The Joker debuted in 1940 while Two-Face appeared in 1942.

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